This is an exploration of memory, exquisitely written as the thoughts of an old man, looking back on his life - good enough to merit 5*, despite the somewhat contrived ending (ironic, given the title).
It opens with six watery images (an unexpected word in several of them makes them more vivid), each of which form part of the story:
"I remember, in no particular order:
- a shiny inner wrist;
- steam rising from a wet sink as a frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
- gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
- a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torch beams;
- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
- bath water long gone cold behind a locked door."
Tony and his three friends were somewhat pretentious teenagers, from moderately privileged backgrounds ("one of those suburbs which has stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since, smugly claimed rural status"). They are on the cusp of going to university. As they go their separate ways, they stay in touch to greater or lesser extents, but events of their youth echo across the years, and as he approaches retirement, Tony tries to draw the threads together and make sense of his life. Very self-absorbed (and not especially likeable), but if anything, I think that makes the book more interesting.
In particular, there are two rather unbalanced relationships that left their mark: with Adrian (who joined school later than the others) and his first proper girlfriend, Veronica. He suffers "pre-guilt: the expectation that she was going to say something that would make me feel properly guilty".
Despite this, and a couple of shocking incidents, Tony is not unhappy with the course of his life, though he is not entirely happy either. His reference to the "small pleasures and large dullnesses of home" is apt. Although he was at university in the sixties, "Most people didn't experience the sixties until the seventies", though he experienced a confusing mix of the two. Nostalgia doesn't help, "the powerful recollection of strong emotions - and regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives". Can you reverse remorse to guilt and forgiveness
Memory, History, Truth
The recurring theme is the accuracy, or inaccuracy, of memory, coupled with the effects of time. Tony is forever musing on memory, history and truth. Revelations prompt further re-evaluation and interpretation. Maybe none of this is true (some elements of the plot and the behaviour of key characters are implausible, or at least, not adequately explained), but does it matter anyway Surely that is the point Barnes is making.
Many books feature unreliable narrators but it's quite refreshing to read one where the narrator is pondering their own unreliability.
Tony is honest about his dishonesty as a narrator (except that he constantly says his relationship with his daughter is closer than it appears from what he describes), and constantly ponders on it:
* "What you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you witnessed."
* "If I can't be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impression those facts left."
* It gets harder with age: "As the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been", and "memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches".
* "When we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others."
* "The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it's the most deliquescent."
* "History is that certainty produce at the point where the imperfection of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation."
* "Mental states can be inferred from actions Whereas in the private life, I think the converse is true: that you can infer past actions from current mental states." Similarly, X "thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it".
* "It takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability."
In the end, the meaning of life is "to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be"!
Some people dislike Tony so much that that it taints their enjoyment of the entire book, but to some extent Tony is everyman and we are all Tony, which leads me to wonder if the dislikers are TOO like Tony for their own comfort!
This is a story that reveals far more with each encounter (like the film, The Sixth Sense): because you know the denouement, you spot the significance of trivial signs earlier on - and also notice the gaps where Tony, and probably the reader, has connected dots that shouldn't be. Petra nails this aspect in the final paragraph of her short, but perfectly formed, review here.
This is SO much better than another of his multi-decade life stories, dating from 25 years earlier, Staring at the Sun (my review HERE).
Another short book in which a grumpy aging man reflects on his life makes an interesting contrast with this - though Yasmina Reza's Desolation (my review HERE) doesn't come out of the comparison favourably (only 2*).
And then there is John Banville, all of whose books seem to focus on, and are often narrated by such people. See my reviews HERE.
UPDATE re Film of 2017
I thought the film, released in April 2017 in the UK, was excellent. There was less about schooldays (fair enough), and Tony was slightly more likeable, which will help some who disliked the book for that reason. The narrative jumped about with Tony's understanding in a similar way to the book.
Three of the six watery images that open the book and this review are featured prominently.
It has a fabulous cast, including Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, and James Wilby, and it mostly captured the tone and plot very well. See: imdb page.